From Sion Sono’s sexploitation cinema tribute to Shin'ichirô Ueda’s zombie found footage horror, filmmakers are forging vibrant and self-aware genre about Japan’s own emphatic cinematic history
The problem with Western discourse on Japanese cinema is that, for the most part, it’s stuck in the past.
Directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu are revisited year upon year in UK cinemas, while even the major film festivals remain hung up on directors who made their names years ago. Take a glance at the past decade of competitions like Venice, Cannes, even the Academy Awards – the Japanese films competing for the top prizes are, more often than not, by the same directors who were competing for them in the 90s.
It’s not to say that these filmmakers are not deserving of the attention. But beyond the likes of Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Wife of a Spy), and Naomi Kawase (True Mothers) – all major award winners in the past five years – there is a new wave of talent chomping at the bit. And, quietly, they’re beginning to steal some of the limelight – making films that subvert the very nature of cinema.
Films about filmmaking are nothing new: Federico Fellini’s 81⁄2 won an Academy Award back in 1963 (Judd Apatow’s tone-deaf 2021 pandemic comedy The Bubble, meanwhile, likely won’t), and Japan’s revered 90s generation all contributed to the subgenre, as well. See Takeshi Kitano’s Glory to the Filmmaker; Kore-eda’s After Life; or Ring director Hideo Nakata’s J-horror dummy run Don’t Look Up (AKA Ghost Actress). Even Takashi Miike’s most celebrated work, Audition, is titled after a fake casting call.
But in the past decade, this vision has evolved in Japan. New filmmakers have crafted a vibrant and innovative, postmodern sub-genre that knowingly looks back upon Japan’s rich cinematic heritage while also offering a dynamic blueprint for future Japanese filmmaking. It’s become a conduit through which Japan’s best creative talents can reach foreign shores – and in 2021, films about filmmaking may well be the movement that puts contemporary Japanese cinema back on the map.
One of the few modern Japanese directors who has established himself internationally to the same degree as his forebears is Sion Sono; the rarity of such a breakthrough summed up by his enduring designation as “enfant terrible” of Japanese cinema, despite having now directed over 50 features. His four-hour art film Love Exposure remains his defining work (it won the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin 2009). And in 2021, his debut Hollywood production has just premiered at Sundance: the delirious Nicolas Cage action-thriller Prisoners of the Ghostland.
Effectively a conduit linking the post-Ring J-horror movement with contemporary independent filmmaking, Sono is a prime example of how films about filmmaking are pushing Japanese cinema forward. Why Don’t You Play In Hell brilliantly segued JJ Abrams’ Super 8 with the action of Kill Bill in 2013, as a group of childhood friends get roped into filming a yakuza attack on a rival organisation. But more recently, in 2020, Red Post On Escher Street was a two-and-a-half arthouse sensation – following a cast of young hopefuls as they go through a gruelling audition process for a feature film, only to all end up as extras.
What otherwise might have been a mundane behind-the-scenes story is here transformed into a deconstruction of “mediocre” and “melodramatic” mainstream Japanese cinema, as one MUBI reviewer puts it. It stands as a contemporary avant-garde classic that applauds the hard-workers at the crux of every major motion picture – from directors pressured by studios to the crew hands making things tick.
Sono’s not the only contemporary filmmaker turning “extras” into stars. 2014’s Uzumasa Limelight is a paean to the Golden Age of Japanese cinema – a poignant, heartfelt drama set in “the Hollywood of the East”, where an ageing stuntman is forced to come to terms with diminishing career prospects. The lead actor is played by real-life bit-part-player Seizô Fukumoto, a man who has been killed “50,000 times” in films ranging from Kinji Fukasaku’s ’70s gangster classics to Miike’s 2010s samurai dramas Thirteen Assassins and Blade of the Immortal. He even took a bullet for Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.
Extro, meanwhile, is a Spinal Tap-style mockumentary about background actors based on period film set Warp Station Edo. It might be the funniest film of 2021, thanks largely to 63-year-old dental-assistant-cum-extra Kozo Haginoya, who can be seen determinedly “warming up his tongue” on the way to work despite the fact that he doesn’t have any lines (he’s later dismayed to hear that he can’t just cover up his beard with make-up to play the role of a clean-shaven samurai). The film premieres this Friday (February 26) in the UK via The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme (running online this year) – the largest film festival of its type in the UK.
As a postmodern reboot of Studio Nikkatsu’s ’Roman Porno’ label of the ’70s (which combined softcore, independent “pink films” with big studio budgets), Sion Sono’s Antiporno shows how films about Japan’s sex film industry are another crucial element of the sub-genre. His tongue-in-cheek throwback pulls the rug from under the viewer after a sexually-primed first act, as an in-film director shouts “Cut!” to reveal that the characters on-screen are, in fact, actors on the set of an explicit movie.
2015 micro-budget indie gem Make-Up Room, meanwhile, is a single-set drama about the trials and tribulations of shooting an adult film (picture Hitchock’s Rope on the set of a porno). It was directed by veteran adult filmmaker Kei Morikawa – who claims he has worked on over 1,000 pornographic movies across a 30-year career. This work (initially a stage play) marked his non-pornographic breakthrough; it toured international film festivals and was successful enough to spawn a sequel.
It wasn’t just a success for the director, either. Adult film star Nanami Kawakami stars as one of Make-Up Room’s leads, setting her up for a similar breakthrough into non-pornographic films. Among the highlights? Lowlife Love, a much more cynical indie drama about a struggling film director attempting to get his next project off the ground with the help/obstruction of a cast of dubious film industry types.
Both Kawakami and director Eiji Uchida would then graduate onto one of Japan’s most successful foreign exports in recent years. Masaharu Take’s Netflix sensation The Naked Director is a comedy-drama adaption of the autobiography of Japan’s real-life “emperor of porn” Toru Muranishi. The series has been likened to Californication and even Breaking Bad; a second series arrives in 2021.
Japanese horror films are traditionally more concerned with ghosts and ghouls than zombies (the living dead, as seen on the silver screen, are largely a construct of Western cinema). It makes sense, then, that the best recent Japanese zombie films have de-emphasised the appetite for brains in favour of highlighting the minds at work behind the scenes.
2011’s The Woodsman and The Rain – winner of the Special Jury Prize at Toronto International Film Festival – is a gem. A light-hearted comedy shot in the style of the classic 50s family dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, it concerns a lumberjack who begrudgingly helps a confidence-stricken filmmaker to complete his movie after fallouts with his production staff. On the flipside, smash hit One Cut of the Dead was one of the most visible Japanese crossover successes in recent memory – a cinematic revelation that became one of the most raucously acclaimed foreign indie films of the decade.
Shin’ichirô Ueda’s Kickstarter-funded project grossed over a thousand times its measly $25,000 budget in 2018 after lighting up the box office across the globe with its sensational premise and innovative format. Effectively a found footage horror film about a camera crew shooting a live TV special (only to be attacked by real-life zombies in the process), the opening act consists of a single, 37-minute continuous take, as seen through the eyes of a cameraman. What comes next is one of the greatest punchlines in modern film history, as the film then goes behind the scenes to reveal that not everything observed was as it seemed.
Its blockbuster success has made a star of director, writer, and editor Ueda, and in 2020, a sequel, set during the present day COVID-19 pandemic, was made over Zoom. With teen-focused filmmaking features such as Soushi Matsumoto’s It’s a Summer Film premiering at Tokyo International Film Festival the same year, the genre’s popularity is showing no signs of waning.
“That love of film segues into the films themselves because they are made out of absolute passion, rather than a studio saying, ‘Let’s make a film about this famous story’” – Adam Torel, producer
With such a rich and diverse filmmaking heritage to draw upon, it’s no surprise that contemporary filmmakers in Japan are finding fortune by turning the camera on their own experiences. As Adam Torel, producer of Lowlife Love and founder of Third Window Films (a leading distributor of Japanese independent cinema in the UK) sees it, this newfound prominence is part of a much more seismic shift in the spectrum.
“These films about films come from independent filmmakers who are passionate about the idea of filmmaking,” he says. “Waves of cinema like this happen all the time – Hollywood cinema gets too big, it crashes, and then the independents come in and take over.” He cites the ascendancies of Quentin Tarantino and Miramax in the 90s as prime examples – but also of the rise of production house A24, “film lover” directors like Edgar Wright and Guillermo Del Toro, and distributors like Arrow Video and Criterion today.
“In Japan,” he continues, “there’s a genuine love of film (among)… independent filmmakers. Even adult video directors are very serious about their work.” In the end, it comes down to a vital motivation: “That love of film segues into the films themselves because they are made out of absolute passion, rather than a studio saying, ‘Let’s make a film about this famous story’.”
With independent cinema from Japan able to penetrate the UK with greater effect than ever before thanks to the efforts of Third Window Films, The Japan Foundation and even streaming platforms like MUBI, maybe it’s time for Western critics to call it how it is: a new golden age of Japanese independent cinema, where filmmaking itself reigns supreme.
Extro premieres February 26 in the UK via The Japan Foundation's Touring Film Programme